Branding the New Space Age: An Interview with Space Agency’s Robin Seemangal

Robin Seemangal is a co-founder of Space Agency, a new creative agency that spun out of Supercluster, a space-focused digital media platform created by GrandArmy and A24. A former space reporter for Wired and The Observer, Robin has been covering the new space race since 2014. In this interview, Robin discusses the genesis of Space Agency, how top space startups are using branding to win the war for talent, and more.

HAUS: What was the genesis of Space Agency?

Robin: I think that space agency was something that was needed. It’s filling a niche that didn’t exist and that is marketing, design and just general creative work for a new sector. The business of going to space and back is becoming this new boom with all these new startups, but it was missing a marketing and advertising infrastructure for all these new businesses. I’m coming at the space industry from a traditional standpoint. At the core of it we’re telling their story and trying to connect the public to their products with the idea of a brighter future through space travel. We’re selling the new space age.

What’s Space Agency’s relationship with GrandArmy and Supercluster?

Supercluster was originally a joint project with GrandArmy and A24. GrandArmy spun out Space Agency through Supercluster, which will remain a digital media company with apps and editorial. Space Agency was a way for us to provide design and branding work for space companies by creating a label that will keep a wall between our editorial and creative work.

What kind of space companies are you doing work for?

It’s a really diverse group of companies that we’re working with. I can’t speak to the specific companies that we’re providing deliverables for, but we do have published case studies available, including for our first client Virgin Orbit. That’s a prime example of a company that we wanted to work with under this label.

Virgin Orbit has a cool idea for air-launched rockets. It’s not a new idea, but they’re bringing it back into this new space economy. Our first production for Virgin was animated and it was painstaking. We did it all by hand because we wanted to establish that level of filmmaking and creativity. We knew that if we really killed it with this first project then we might be able to build something off of it. After that, we did some more projects including a partnership with Pioneer Works, which is this great nonprofit in New York that does shows and publications around science and astronomy. We’ve also done work for non-profits like The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and The Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, and we’ve produced branded space content with Dropbox.

We worked with Virgin Orbit again on a documentary short film that allowed us to flex our filmmaking capabilities. We’re really proud of that and those two Virgin videos have opened a lot of doors for us. We also recently published our case study for ABL, a new launcher, on branding and a website relaunch, and we continue to work with them on extensions for the brand. And I think those are going to be the three main avenues for Space Agency: short films for marketing campaigns, website development, and branding.

The space industry is mostly B2B and B2G companies. Why is branding important for these companies that are largely focused on solving hard technical problems?

Everyone wants to look great for their audience. But a lot of these space startup are trying to please two groups: investors and the people they need to work in their shops. So when we’re creating a logo or an aesthetic for a company that’s working with us, they’re thinking ‘What is going to be attractive to an investor or what resonates with potential employees. A lot of space startups need SpaceX employees to leave and come and work in their shop. I hate to be that specific, but that’s where we are in the industry right now. It’s pretty well known that there are only a couple of feeder companies into these startups–they’re all founded by former Blue Origin or SpaceX employees. That’s a perpetual problem, there’s never enough talent in aerospace. So that’s the ground level of where these companies are coming from with their marketing and advertising goals. Both are equally important, especially the investor piece right now. The last few years have seen a lot of capital flooding into new space, but that is slowing down right now for many reasons–a slowing economy, failures in the industry, and so on.

It sounds like the fact that more space startups are starting to take branding seriously is a mark of how mature the industry has become. There are so many startups now, and such a fierce war for talent, that these startups can’t afford not to differentiate with top notch branding and marketing efforts.

Exactly. And we’re going back to the very basics here. For example, these companies need a logo that looks good and is instantly recognizable. If you’re going to put resources into something, it should be your logo. It’s what people are going to see in the newswire or on the launch livestream. That brand awareness is something that is shared by every industry, but the space industry is kind of just waking up to the importance of becoming a global brand that is recognized by everyday people.

What are unique challenges with branding space companies?

A lot of companies build themselves up too much too soon in the space industry. Silicon Valley has always been about “fake it until you make it,” but you can’t do that as much in the space industry. You have to prove it. A lot of these space companies are flying way too high, brand-wise–they’re tweeting and posting as if they’ve already conquered the world before they’ve even gotten to orbit. But when it’s time to do the groundwork, they flatline. That really hurts their brand, and the farther you’re up the harder you fall. I mean, look at SpaceX. Back in the day, they didn’t do livestreams and their PR machine didn’t exist. First they went out and did stuff. When I started covering SpaceX eight years ago, nobody cared. Then as they started to hit milestone after milestone, their audience got bigger, they’re brand got bigger, and they became what they are today. It’s never too early for a company to start doing brand building work, but they need to balance that against their actual technological progress. A good brand and clear storytelling can get you in the door so you can raise the money for R&D on your first prototype, but people will know when you’re bullshitting.

ABL brand refresh via Space Agency
ABL brand refresh via Space Agency

In the past, the space industry was very reliant on traditional media to tell their story. Do you see more of this storytelling work moving in-house now?

100%. Every company wants to be a media company now. Should every space company be a media company? Of course not. For example, it creates a bunch of ethical issues when you’re trying to communicate to the public if you receive taxpayer funds. But I do think that every company should have its own media ecosystem that has both internal and external components. These companies are not as dependent on traditional media anymore because of YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and all these other channels they have access to now where their story can be told. I think NASA really started this. NASA is a media company now and they’re one of the largest in the world with a production outfit that rivals Universal Studios. We see companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin that followed NASA’s lead, started publishing their own livestreams, publishing their own articles and news updates, and so on. That’s trickled down through the rest of the space industry and a lot of companies are still doing articles with traditional media but also doing bits with YouTubers and things like that. Many of these companies are still working with the traditional media, but in the future you’re going to see a lot more coverage just coming from their website and social channels, which is already the purpose of a lot of the content we produce for our clients.

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